Trump Administration Promises to Staff Up Police on Public Lands After Announcing Major Cuts

Bird watching at Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas. Bird watching at Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas. Interior Department photo by Tony Ifland

The Trump administration is pushing back on the notion that it is slashing the number of federal law enforcement officers on national wildlife refuges, saying that an upcoming dramatic reduction in personnel will soon be coupled with new staffing.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s wildlife refuge chief sent a memorandum to staff last month announcing it was cutting nearly 20 percent of its law enforcement staff. The announcement stoked deep concern among advocates of public lands workers, such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, as it came in the wake of armed militia members forcefully occupying a refuge headquarters in Oregon in 2016 and an announcement last month that the lands would be more open for public use.  

FWS will terminate its National Wildlife Refuge System’s dual function officer program by the end of the year, stripping dozens of employees of their law enforcement functions. Those employees will remain on the rolls, serving in management, biology or other positions. The agency will instead shift resources toward full-time law enforcement personnel, who FWS said are better positioned to handle the agency’s workload.

“In the 21st century, the threats facing visitors and wildlife are more complex than ever,” refuge Chief Cynthia Martinez said in the memo. “Protection of the National Wildlife Refuge System now requires a full-time officer corps that combines a concentrated effort on conservation protection, traditional policing and emergency first response to protect, serve and educate the public and Service staff.”

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After the dual function employees are decommissioned, FWS will have 230 full-time officers. PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch called that insufficient, noting there are 562 refuges in the national system.

“Refuge law enforcement is already critically understaffed, so this sizeable capacity reduction makes an already bad situation much worse,” Ruch said.

Gavin Shire, an FWS spokesman, said ending the program that enabled employees to work part time on law enforcement duties will enable the agency to hire more full-time officers and in turn enable it to “better meet the safety needs and expectations of the American public.”

The announcement came just weeks after FWS announced it was opening 251,000 acres in the refuge system to hunting and fishing.

“Because of the multiple public uses of, and growing visitation to, refuges, the law enforcement role in these preserves is complex and increasingly demanding,” Ruch said.

During and in the aftermath of the Malheur occupation, refuge employees said they were confronted when buying groceries and running errands. FWS was forced to relocate employees and their families for their safety, the agency’s director said at the time. The agency spent $6.3 million in response to the armed takeover.

Seven of the militia members were acquitted of all charges related to the incident. Twelve individuals pleaded guilty, while four were found guilty in federal court.

After the acquittal, then-FWS Director Dan Ashe said the agency was “profoundly disappointed in the outcome of the trial” but was committed to ensuring the safety of its employees and the larger community. Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a memo to employees cautioning them to “remain vigilant” after the verdict was announced.  

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